Dan Bern takes Dylan comparisons in stride
Dan Bern hears it almost every time he talks to a music writer: Wasn’t there another guy who was Jewish, played folk songs and came from a small Midwestern townâ¢ You sure do sound like that Bob Dylan guy.
It’s not fair, but Bern doesn’t mind — too much.
“In the hands of somebody who is smart and understands the context, and understands that Dylan didn’t invent all that stuff either, that he didn’t invent talking blues and neither did Woody (Guthrie), and that there’s this long history of balladeering, and that the way he writes and the way I write and the way Chaucer writes have some commonalities, then fine,” Bern says.
“I’m definitely in that tradition. But more often than not, it’s a very narrow context. … You’re a Jewish guy from the Midwest with a harmonica, singing about things other than a narrow set of things. In that context, it’s tiresome.”
OK, then: Bern, who plays Saturday at Rosebud, follows a long tradition of storytelling via music that extends back to “The Canterbury Tales.”
Or something close to that.
But trying to pigeonhole Bern’s genius — to listen to him even briefly is to recognize that he’s a sublimely talented artist — is an elusive task. His new release, “New American Language,” is the sort of album that can be listened to and dissected on multiple levels, as he examines topics that are spiritual (“Toledo”), temporal (“Alaska Highway”), personal (“Sweetness”) and comical (“Rice”).
Bern believes that anything in the world — and some things not of this world — are available to and should be used by songwriters. Songwriting, he adds, is a pursuit that is “as natural as throwing a ball. You see that in little kids. They don’t say they’re going to the store; it’s some sing-song melody thing.”
A childlike sense of wonder, however, doesn’t limit Bern’s subject matter. In “God Says No,” he asks if he can go back in time to prevent Kurt Cobain from committing suicide, Adolf Hitler from spreading evil, and Christ from being crucified. Addressing God directly is a tradition that harks back to the Old Testament, when Moses, Abraham and the prophets beseeched the Lord.
“It’s part of what a human being is to me,” he says. “It’s available to us, a personal relationship to God, whatever that means to anybody. In my way of thinking, when we’re given life, that’s part of the deal.”
It’s communicating on any level, whether through songwriting or in daily conversation, that matters the most. In the song “New American Language,” Bern makes a case for creating a different type of dialogue.
“The way they talk about stuff on the news, in the media, the way people often find their level of discourse, I find often unsatisfying and frustrating,” he says, “because it seems to skirt things. I guess what I’m always trying to do in my songs is communicate things in a way that comes from some new place of thinking about things, feeling about things.”
“Phil Ochs,” Bern adds, “his two heroes were Dylan and Elvis. He felt like his personal mission was to bring together the message and level of deep consciousness of Dylan with the physicality and popularity of Elvis. That’s the thing I’m talking about in a ‘New American Language,’ to tell the truth with a good beat and some nice harmonies. That’s the thing for me.”